Best deterrent: caring citizens

In the dismal picture of increasing crime rates, there are some bright spots -- communities that fight crime and win. Sun City, Ariz., a retirement community of 50,000 outside of Phoenix, was once a favorite target of burglars and purse-snatchers. Although many were not rich, the residents had accumulated enough possessions to attract criminals who saw the elderly as weak.

But the elderly of Sun City are not so weak. About seven years ago citizens from the community joined forces with the Maricopa County sheriff's office. About 250 uniformed volunteers now assist the county police. They have taken a special training course on how to spot crimes and how to prevent them. Although they don't chase suspects themselves, the volunteers are the "eyes and ears" of the official police and report their findings.

Today crime rates have dropped so far that insurance companies give Sun City the lowest premium rates in Arizona.

In Metro East, a 1,200-unit mobile-home park also in Maricopa County, burglaries were almost a weekly occurrence, and possessions continually vanished from the residents' yards.

Since the establishment of a volunteer patrol there, the sheriff's office reports that there has been only one burglary in almost six years.

"We weren't doing anything about crime prevention" before the citizens began participating, says Don Blankenship, superintendent of crime prevention for Maricopa County. As crime rates went up, the sheriff's department merely increased the number of officers, he says. But it was a losing battle against crime.

The police and community had a sterile, "Just the facts, m'am" relationship in the past, Mr. Blankenship says. The volunteer program has "let the regulars know that the civilians wonht contaminate us," he says.

Moreover, the civilian patrolling reportedly saves the county $2.5 million a year because it performs some routine duties that had formerly been assigned to paid officers.

Crime experts say that such citizen cooperation is the key to stopping crime, even in giant cities like New York.

"I'm totally convinced that citizens want to help," says Patrick V. Murphy, president of the Police Foundation and former chief of police in New York City. The problem is that "many police departments don't want them," he says.

"Crime can never be controlled by prosecutors, prisons, or judges," Mr. Murphy says. "It must be controlled by families, neighbors, associations, schools, and churches, with the police orchestrating the effort."

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